Monday, 31 October 2011

30th October - Brash Fires

Sasso Hen

The weather continues to be extremely mild and I worked all day wearing a T-shirt, despite a gentle drizzle which drifted diagonally throughout the afternoon. Having said that, if it had been -4°C, I doubt that I would have been particularly cold, as hauling brash is strenuous work. As well as the physical exertion there was also the raging fire which inevitably I gazed at with primeval fascination after throwing on every load, feeling the familiar sensation of fierce heat drying out my lips and skin. A brash fire is unlike any other, it is dynamic and ever in need of attention. With a log fire of seasoned wood the kindling is lit, larger logs added and away it goes but to have a successful blaze of bushy living stems, an element of artistry is required. Firstly a good fire of dead wood must be made to the size of a decent campfire, then every piece of brash cut into short lengths and stacked high directly on top. The constant battle is to prevent the centre burning out and with trees such as Hawthorn this can happen easily when pieces that are too large are added initially.  If the starter fire was sufficiently strong a tongue of flame will slowly weave up through the thatch, crackling ferociously. At this point there is always the temptation to throw anything of any size on but repeated experience has shown me that it's worth persevering with short lengths placed meticulously on top until the whole structure is a mass of flames. Only then can loading start in earnest and if each addition, still placed right on top, is engulfed then the time has arrived to work hell for leather feeding the insatiable crimson cone rearing into the air. Religiously adding the stems in the same direction helps to create an orderly stack and that should always be the aim. Even an apparently established fire can burn out in the middle if the brash does not form a neat column above which moves down under its own weight as the material below is consumed. When going properly, a fire of this sort burns with a formidable, smokeless heat, popping the bark from living stems and turning them to curling cinders in seconds. My father taught me these things over 20 years ago and I have never forgotten them nor lost my fascination for that wild flame which has cost me so many eye brows and lashes.

Later in the afternoon Em (and G of course) dropped round with friends and leaving the heap of glowing charcoal I joined them to walk down into the valley. Below us the dark green bramley orchard was divided by lines of bright yellow Worcester's and above them the derelict cider orchard, dripping with its small red, bitter sweets, had a rosy glow about it in the gloomy light. Before long we will be making cider and in larger quantities than usual. I have been unable to get hold of barley this year and without barley there will be no malt and therefore no beer!


Roast chicken with red cabbage casserole, roasted vegetables, sprouts and bread sauce. This was our first sampling of a ‘Sasso’ a French free range meat variety which we are rearing for the first time. There was ample flesh, more than on our usual crossbreds, but to me at least, it was dryer and not so tasty.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

28th October - Rough Shooting

Mixed Bag

At some point during the summer a letter comes through the door from our local vet and good friend H. The content of the letter is not about animal health, but rather the contrary.  It is a list of shoot dates spreading from October through to the end of January. I've been involved in H’s shoot for over 15 years and during that time my excitement for driven pheasant has waned slightly. Nowadays my role is one of posting guns, bringing in the flanks and back gunning to mop up the birds which have got wise to the system. This suits me very well, as I get all the shooting I want and my close relationship to the establishment means I am invited to several of H’s rough shoots and rough shooting is where my passion really lies. To walk all day with friends pushing up hedges and walking in stubble, stalking ponds and waiting for pigeons appeals to my nature and fits more comfortably with my way of life.

By my own tradition it is waxed jacket for rough days and tweed for more formal shoots. Recently I listened to a friend complaining about the smell of old Barbours but to me it is a stirring scent, imbued with a lifetime's memory of shooting with my father, going beating, ferreting and days spent like today. The first drive saw us lining up to sweep a hundred acre field of wheat stubble. No cultivation had started, (probably due to some government payment or other) and as a result the ground was dotted with skylarks which fluttered up in ones and pairs as Treacle and I approached. We saw pheasants but I had no shots and so it continued until after lunch. Still this is often the way on rough days and the unpredictable nature of the sport is a large part of its appeal. Of course when you work a dog there is another avenue for satisfaction (as well as extreme frustration).  Treacle excelled herself at Spratsporn farm, driving numerous birds from two small copses densely grown over with brambles and then later by retrieving two lost pheasants also from thick cover.

After lunch, (a sandwich of egg mayonnaise and crisp chickweed) I was sent across H's farm to beat out a neighbouring market garden. Pheasants were everywhere feeding on fallen beans and rotting squashes and despite my bawling the dog took off and went berserk. The result was fine, as panic stricken birds flew in her wake to the waiting guns - even I bagged a couple which flew back - but in terms of discipline the incident was appalling. At the next farm we walked more stubble before driving a hornbeam coppice canopied with pale gold where a white pheasant broke from a bramble patch. It was a simple enough shot and it is my suspicion that H deliberately missed to avoid the inevitable jocular cry for ' £100 ' which would have accompanied its descent to earth.  (It is traditional to pay a stout fine for shooting a white pheasant). We finished at 3.30pm with seven brace of pheasants, four doves (shot from farmer's barn) and three pigeons. I was given my share and so the season for eating game begins! An invitation for dinner from my parents meant I didn't have to cook, so instead I planted ' Winter density ' lettuce in the greenhouse and potted up the tomato cuttings I had taken from H's greenhouse. This is a new experiment of mine to over-winter tomato cuttings instead of planting seeds in the spring. Seed for the popular varieties has become extortionate (around three pounds for eight seeds in the case of Sun Gold) and besides that I'm always keen to find ways of getting my tomatoes going earlier so they're able to produce more fruit before the blight arrives. ' Sun Gold ' cuttings which I potted a fortnight ago are now well rooted.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

28th October - Fireworks Party

My current routine is to rise at 5:30 AM and write about the previous day, a necessary discipline for the would-be writer who is busy during the day and mentally sluggish in the evening. I mention this because as I wrote this morning, long before it was light, a queen wasp appeared and began buzzing around the gradually brightening bulb. Though not remarkable in itself, (save for its angry contempt for three hard strikes with ' Singing Aloud-100 songs for unison voices) it was yet another reminder that winter is truly on its way. The nests will break up fast now the queens have flown and the redundant workers will gorge on rotting fruit until the first heavy frosts take them.

For my sins, (which must be considerable on today's evidence) I spent the whole day lopping an overgrown hedge for a friend and neighbour. It was, in simple terms, a pig of a job. Hawthorne is a formidable adversary at ground level, but tackled from the summit of my rickety steps the woven branches and gouging spines had me sweating and swearing. Under casual observation from the neighbouring builders, I managed the whole 70 yard stretch, but left behind me a daunting ridge of brash along the whole length - a job for Sunday. In the bath, full of wood chip from my long and wholly impractical hair, I marvelled at my fore arms, scored with a cobweb of angry scratches from wrist to elbow and thought with anticipation about the approaching hedge laying season.

Every year we have the good fortune to be invited to a large bonfire and fireworks party just down the lane. The event, I suppose has become part of our burgeoning family tradition and this evening we made the annual pilgrimage on foot with our newest member. It was mild and still and as usual the halogen floodlights could be seen from afar, blurred this evening by a slight mist. On arrival my workmen's appetite was immediately stirred by the food preparations. A large pig striped with golden crackling turned slowly over oak logs whilst alongside plump, new season pheasants cooked slowly on a barbecue. With my mind firmly focused on dinner I was almost startled by S appearing out of the darkness. With two of his boys off running wild with the mob of other children, he and his father settled in with us for an evening of joking and gossip over plastic cups of beer. The food did not disappoint once the interminable queue finally subsided and as if to mark the momentous moment the first exploding mortars stunned the mumbling crowd to silence as we were handed our baps. Forget a small amateur display.  The hosts put on some of the larger shows in the south-east and this evening we were treated to the works. Choreographed explosion after explosion filled the smoke laden sky with twirling spirals of pink, shimmering plumes of gold and starbursts of green and blue. As the fireworks faded, the bonfire, a 20 foot heap of brash and pallets, was kindled and within seconds an immense tongue of flame was sending dusky sparks high into the night. G was unmoved by the whole event and was more interested in pulling up grass than he had been in the display. Still his good humour ensured an enjoyable evening and we wheeled him back, his head lolling with contented sleep.

Friday, 28 October 2011

27th October-Drying Pears

Creeping Dawn

When every day is spent in the same environment, subtle changes go unnoticed as events but it is these daily discrepancies which turn winter to summer, summer to winter. The chestnut which was sealed shut yesterday reveals a glimpse of burnished brown nut today, the bunch of rowan berries which, already picked over by blackbirds, falls to the ground. After an extraordinary dawn of lurid mauve creeping over the tree line, the first true light revealed what a change three days have made. Waning days have defied the uniformity of summer replacing the even tapestry of woodland beyond the ridge with a patchwork quilt. Larch, chestnut, birch and oak whose boughs I have often walked between, standing out with subtle difference in tone and texture from their neighbours. Immediately before me the hedge, which would more accurately be described as a thin strip of wood, was far from subtle. The tall ash with its swollen twisted bowl stood all but bare whilst besides it bird cherry dashed the golden field maple with sprays of flame red leaves.

The germination of seeds is a glaring exception to the rule above, for me at least. Every day I search for infinitesimal change in the carefully prepared seedbeds and in spring every morning starts with a ' garden tour ' to see what new plants have emerged. Watching spinach pushing up in the greenhouse at the end of October is a curious thing and if it continues to grow, eating it at Christmas will be even stranger.

In our absence the first of the stored comice pears have ripened to a light straw colour. Inevitably the large rounded fruits spoil far quicker than we can eat them so every year I dry them by the score to produce our favourite snack. Smaller pears such as conference, dry to a leathery scrap but done properly, half a comice remains fleshy and sweet developing a wonderful chewy, almost toffee-like texture. The process is simple.  Cut them in half, remove the core with a spoon and put them somewhere warm and airy. The drawback to their size is that comice take a long time to dry, usually four days or so. In years gone by I have put them low in the Rayburn oven with the door left slightly ajar, but have lost so many due to absent-mindedly closing  it, that this season I have developed a new system. A couple of years back I installed a wood burner in the bathroom, prompted by complaints from Em about the toothbrushes freezing (not a joke) and now it is stacked up with half pears on racking. The continually rising hot air has already given the skins the appearance of turning in slightly along the cut edges.  This is a good sign and I'm hopeful it will prove a more efficient method.

Drying Pears


Spanish omelette. The chickens clearly laid well whilst we were away and the pile of eggs in the larder, scraps of ham in the fridge and the last peppers ripening outside, made the choice of dinner for me.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

26th October - Home, Home on the Range

Sunrise Over Mist

The heart of our home is undoubtedly the solid fuel Rayburn which sits in the old open fireplace. An unremarkable piece of hardware really, constituting a beige enamel box streaked with brown stains and soot and a black top in which is set the hotplate polished smooth by pans. I remember my scepticism when I first clapped eyes on it and the struggle to kindle a fire, but now our life revolves around it. We keep it well fed and in return receive an oven, hob, clothes dryer, hot water, warmth and even a radiator to keep the chill from G's nursery. All for the price of a few days a year spent cutting wood with my father! There's no timer on the wood burner though and on our return this evening the cottage felt damp and cold, reminiscent of five years back when we first moved in. Three bags of weatherboard off cuts leaning up outside the door indicated that our builder friend A had paid a visit in our absence and so, without even having to venture into the damp night for logs, I soon had a blaze crackling away behind the heavy cast door.

If human blinkers were available, Em would have bought them a long while back and stapled them to my head in an attempt to keep my eyes on the road whilst driving. I freely admit that it is dangerous and try hard to remain focused, but today as always there was so much to draw the eye: the ground outside a village church scarlet with yew berries, a roebuck grazing on grass strewn stubble, red kites soaring to evade the mocking crows, sunlight seeping into misty valleys, rare service trees flame red with autumn colour and ravens wheeling above the Malvern Hills.

Fruit cake and a pear   -   the travellers repast!

Monday, 24 October 2011

23rd October - Memory like an Elephant?

Acorns in Autumn Light

Being a forager, I am often put in mind of those elephants you hear about on natural history programmes. The ones which through a feat of memory and sense of season arrive at every fruit tree within their territory just in time to eat the falling fruit. Of course my sense of timing is less accurate and to arrive at a favourite haunt to find the cep demolished by slugs, the lime blossom over or all the hazelnuts already eaten by squirrels is not uncommon. I try through, and a lot of the leg work is certainly taken out of gathering wild food by being in the right habitat at the right time, a payoff for hundreds of hours of largely fruitless wandering in years gone by. My mental foraging map/weather-adjusted seasonal calendar (I wonder if there is an app for that?) also has the complexity of factoring in pig food and I hope they appreciate the hours spent staring at mast producing trees trying to assess when the suspended forage might drop. I make it sound like a chore but having a reason to look up into the sprawling boughs of an oak, as the sun turned amber this afternoon has left me with a memory which would otherwise have been lost. That idea holds true for so many things which I do.  The acts of shooting or fishing, foraging or hedge laying are done for love and necessity, but also ensure that I am abroad with the opportunity to experience the chance sightings and happenings which no one can predict or plan to see.

After a calm evening which saw pipistrelles hawking in the dwindling light, the wind blew up, sweeping away cloud to reveal a starry night. It was exciting and slightly unnerving to the stand in the garden (essentially a woodland clearing) beneath a clear sky, hearing gusts set about the oaks, aspens and chestnut coppice. The constant roar was still a sound of summer, the rich groan of a million leaves brushing and fretting in the dark. Soon the same wind will raise a clattering furore from the same woods, as naked branches beat upon their neighbours.

My extensive readership will be crushed to hear that I'm going away for a few days, but my digital scribblings will resume on my return. Mr. C (a name which he has rejected, but Mr. good-looking is so long winded) might even put in an appearance, possibly with a new gun!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

22nd October - Mice in the Attic


When Em and I first moved to the cottage our new neighbours mentioned that the previous occupant, a well liked elderly chap had owned no less than 13 cats. Frankly we were horrified at the thought, not least because it explained immediately the dank musty smell, impervious to bleach and soap which lingered in the spare room. However as time went by horror slowly turn to comprehension. Our cottage is surrounded by woods on three sides and it soon became apparent that of all the woodland residents only we regarded it as a solely human habitation. The squirrel dray found in our hot water tank, which had been making our bathwater for a month, should I suppose have served as warning. At times, when my beetroot are gnawed through or every ripe strawberry vanishes over night I consider re-enlisting a feline army, but I never have and now the coming and going of animals and insects is just another part of the changing seasons. Most are welcome guests, though I do draw the line at rats and squirrels. Currently lace wings and ladybirds by the score are sheltering under the weatherboard or about the window frames and for the first time last night I heard a familiar rumble above my head. The yellow throated mice are back, and providing they behave (no chewing through wires or tunnelling to the pantry) will be with us until spring.

The course, though I say it myself was a success. Friendly, vibrant participants always help and an upbeat, inquisitive air made the day go with a swing. The great disappointment this year is the total lack of fungi. The exceptional warmth and lack of rain has left the ground powdery dry and rotten wood like balsa, no good at all for growing mushrooms. Still there were consolations.  Common sorrel and its unrelated namesake, wood sorrel, were unseasonably abundant and the excavated roots of dandelion, burdock and silverweed were long and thick. Also rosehips for the first time in my experience, were so ripe that the puréed flesh tasted sugary sweet, so much so that course members likened it to strawberry or raspberry jam. I shan't try to fit a day course into a paragraph, but shall mention that wilted sorrel and Jack-by-the-hedge tossed with oily potatoes proved a hit, as did dandelion coffee brewed from the caramelised roots.

Dog Rose Hip

Common Sorel


Em has taken G away for the weekend to leave the cottage free for courses, so I indulge in a bachelor meal of leftover spaghetti bolognese eaten straight from the saucepan. It's hard to get inspired cooking for one and I recall a period at college when a tin of tomatoes gulped straight from the can, washed down with a mug of tartrazine yellow mango squash was standard fare.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

21st October - Sugar for My Honey (Bees)

Runway Traffic

'For every moment there is an action demanded by weather and season. They are the conductors of every years song, who lead the familiar tune, learned by rote to an ever shifting beat. '

The diktat for this moment is to feed my bees in readiness for winter. Bees under natural circumstances are more than capable of looking after themselves, but when you spend all summer raiding their winter store cupboard it must be replaced. The smiling lady at the local Spar must have thought I had a chronic sweet tooth when I first staggered to the counter balancing 15 bags of sugar, but it is a sight she is used to as I probably buy around buy 50 kg annually for my 10 hives. This flies in the face of self-sufficiency I know, but the cold light of economics penetrates even my sheltered world. Honey sells for £8.25 per kilogram and granulated sugar costs around 70 p per kilogram. Even so, I reduce the quantities a little by allowing the bees some time to collect their own stores at the end of each summer.

Once I had recovered from parting with real money (the Spar don't except barter card) I made up the syrup. 1 kg of sugar to 1 pint of water (a marriage of units for convenience's sake) warmed until all the crystals have dissolved. When it had finished cooling down, which conveniently happened after dark, I placed it into the bee feeders which sit on top of each hive just under the roof. The feeders are not unlike round cake tins containing a tube which allows the bees to climb up into it and collect the syrup. My head torch, a gift last Christmas is a useful tool for the job, but has left me with a sore nose on more than one occasion as bees will always fly to light!
 Bee Feeder

'Money can't buy you love' and parsnips won't pay for the council tax, so even I from time to time must delve into the world of work. I am fortunate however that I can choose the things I enjoy doing and most of my (and my wife's) moneymaking schemes centre around our interests. Tomorrow and the next day I will be leading foraging courses from the cottage and as part of the package I provide a home-cooked lunch. I mention this underwhelming fact because I'd like to say a few words about one of the dishes I have prepared. The scarlet runner bean must be the cause of more guilt amongst gardeners than any other vegetable on the face of the earth. It's sheer abundance driving growers to extreme measures such as chutney or even winemaking in a vain attempt to eliminate waste. One year Em (my wife) and I were fed up with the emotional blackmail and left the pods on the vine to set seed. We have never looked back and now use more runners as shelled beams then green. This slight deviation delivers me smoothly to runner bean hummus, the dish in question. I suppose just about any pulse or been could be turned into a kind of hummus, but we find runners work particularly well, they're plentiful, big and give a sweet smooth finish. I have included the recipe for anyone who is interested.

Runner Bean Hummus

1/2 pint dried runner beans simmered until tender
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small clove of garlic
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste


Place all ingredients in a liquidiser. Add water a little at a time until it is possible to blend ingredients to a smooth paste.
Runner Bean Hummus


Spatchcock partridge with mixed vegetables and gravy. Not my own acquisition but a gift from a friend who was offered a brace for his dogs! A sad indication of the type of shooter who has become far too common. Cutting up the backbone and flattening out makes for faster, more even cooking and does away with the, 'Do I risk drying out the breast to cook through the legs? ' conundrum.

Friday, 21 October 2011

20th October - first frost

Perfect Pears

Stepping outside, the stars still visible above the silent aspens I was struck by the sharp dry cold which betrays a frosty morning. Quickly I walked round the cottage with rising excitement and as I had hoped, across the lane the field lay still and pale bellow dark oaks which loomed in silhouette against the kindling eastern sky. About my feet the dips and divots of the rough lawn were white with crystals and plucking a dandelion leaf I brought it up into the seeping light. Minute daggers of ice bristled about its edges echoing the toothed leaf and I breathed deep as if by doing so I could draw in the moment and keep it somehow. Winter is coming, the range will burn day and night mingling the scent of wood smoke with everything we do, second and even third duvets will be pulled from the cupboards, favourite hats rediscovered and today the season for shooting begins. Shooting season proper began some time back, but for me pursuing game in short sleeves seems inherently wrong and it is only with cold weather that the urge to take up my gun seizes me once more. With child like exuberance I went on to feed the animals calling up the pigs with gleeful tones from their straw bed. Like reluctant adolescents they turned out with grudging demeanours and ruffled coats covered in bedding. Acorns down however they wasted no time tucking into breakfast. As I watched them eat (pigs are horrendous time wasters) the assured cok - cok of a pheasant made me look up. I spotted him under a mature ash, his chest puffed up against the cold, bronze and brilliant in the first rays of sun.

Conference pears which we gathered some weeks ago while still hard, have ripened to sweet perfection. Some years seem better than others and perhaps it was the hot September which has made their firm white flesh taste like nectar. I've always had a thing about pears and remember as a child visiting an auntie who had a large collection of figurines. She kindly suggested that my sister and I might like to name one and after a lot of argument the blond soldier boy was christened Timothy Pear, neither of us willing to concede to the others preference. I wonder if he still exists, standing to attention in his plastic tube.

Our dog a black working Cocker who has spent the summer chewing bones and causing mischief, needs to get fit for the season ahead, so inspired by this and the cold start I threw on my tattered barber and took her out with the gun. It was only 4:30 PM but already the shadows cast by the hedgerow oaks were stretching long across the meadow. Pigeons and rooks moved about the distant gateway but departed in leisurely fashion as I approached. Suddenly two hen birds broke from a clump of stinging nettles to my right and in one fluid movement unforgotten by arms and eye I swung, squeezed the trigger and missed clean. Reassuring that some things don't change with time and as if to hammer the point home Treacle took off (apparently unimpeded by an idle summer) at breakneck speed in pursuit of the second bird, which had glided low towards the Orchard. In fairness she came back with reasonable promptness and together we skirted the pear trees up to the hilltop. I never tire of the view from that spot and today the patchwork of fields newly sown and dry had a beige, creamy look about them. In the far distance fading field maples frayed the edges of oak stands still resolutely green and close by, avenues of ageing poplar made striking lines of yellow, marking the windward boundaries of hop gardens long since forgotten.

Carrying on I worked the dog in every available clump of bramble and thorn and every time she emerged her tongue was out and tail wagging furiously. I didn't have another shot or even have the opportunity, but it felt good to be out again with a gun under my arm and an unruly, scampering hound around my feet.


Spaghetti Bolognese. We don't keep cattle, but I slaughtered and butchered a bullock for a farmer friend a couple of months back and got paid in meat. Nothing special to mention except I never fry my garlic with the onions any more, but add it later to get more flavour.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

19th October - Hey Diddly Dee, A Riddler's Life for Me

 Free pigs eating free food - the perfect system

Our brand of self-sufficiency is essentially about spending as little as possible. In this way we hope to have more time to pursue those things which we personally consider worthwhile and less time simply earning money. Of course producing all of your own vegetables, meat, firewood, alcohol…you name it - takes a phenomenal amount of time, but thankfully being outside living an active hands-on-life is something I’ve always wanted.

Every three or four years we experience a tremendous acorn crop from the numerous mature oaks which grace the countryside hereabouts and this year is, without doubt a mast year to remember. One of the meats we produce is pork and currently we have two pigs living in and around hopper huts opposite the cottage. I don't believe in buying food for pigs (which doesn't mean I'm not forced to do it from time to time).  They eat vegetable scraps, bread waste from local bakers and whatever I can get hold of, but this week (and all weeks in fact when available) they have mostly been eating acorns. My early research into feeding pigs acorns gave stark predictions about feeding too many. However my experience is that they can eat their fill day on day without any adverse consequences. Having traditional breed crosses and the fact that I always try and feed fruit and vegetables with the nuts may have some bearing on this.

Before I embark on the fascinating subject of acorn riddling, I can't resist mentioning that the pigs themselves represent what is most likely my single most successful foraging session. For months pigs had been periodically sited roaming free up near the main road. Every time this happened the phone would ring and I would be asked if my pigs had escaped. On a certain day about a month ago this happened six times and I gauged from this repetition that no one really wanted to claim the pigs (as original owners must have been aware that they had escaped by now).  So accompanied by my long-suffering friend C, we went up the lane to try and round them up. People must have thought they had driven into Anglo-Saxon England, with the sight of two scruffy bloke's herding three even scruffier pigs along the tarmac, and indeed the faces of passers-by were a joy to behold! The operation was unexpectedly successful and my wife was as surprised as anyone to see the pigs trotting down the lane, through the gate and into our pen. We turned the largest one straight into sausages as it must have already weighed at least 200lb and the other two are still fattening up nicely.

Several large sacks of acorns are already in store after C and I did a Blitzkrieg nut raid on the local lanes, sweeping and shovelling the acorns into bags where they had fallen on the tarmac and then been conveniently pushed to the edges by passing cars - needless to say more funny looks. For the pigs’ daily ration however I take to the woods which merge seamlessly into our garden and sort the generous layer of free forage from the leaf litter. It's a simple process which I must confess has been improved somewhat by C and his contribution to the setup - a rather large and ramshackle sieve. With a shovel I scrape the acorns into piles which inevitably also contain leaves sticks and other debris. This mixture is then tossed up onto a large, gently sloping sieve of small gauge wire which allows small particles to fall through as the larger bits, including the acorns role to the bottom. Next the acorn debris mix is put on a larger sieve which allows the acorns through but leaves the worst of the leaves and sticks on top. Is a slightly laborious process but in 20 minutes I can gather a wheelbarrow full of reasonably pure nuts and with pig feed at around £8 per 20 kg sack it’s well worth the effort. Acorns incidentally have a similar feed value to barley, which means about 12% crude protein, lots of carbohydrate and a little fat which makes them good food for slow grown pigs.

                                                             Heavy acorn crop

                                                                  C's big sieve

                                                           Removing large debris

                                                            The finished product

When you only eat your own vegetables, the maturing of a new crop is always a little bit exciting. Last night we had our first brussel sprouts and another first was rabbit for our six-month-old son G. Last week I poached a young rabbit until the meat flaked away from the bone then froze it in ice cube trays. After whizzing a cube up with some courgette it went down a treat.


(Sometimes I can barely remember what I cooked last night yet alone last week or month, so I've decided to keep a note and include recipes of those things which I've made up and then really enjoyed. Apologies - I always cook by eye, so there won't be any quantities given).

Slow cooked mutton chops with tomatoes and borlotti beans. This is one of my favourite dishes and something I often cook in the autumn when the new borlotti harvest is in and there are still a few tomatoes in the garden.

Mutton chops
Pre-cooked borlotti beans
Bouquet garni

Fry onion until transparent

Push onions to one side and brown chops

Add all other ingredients, season to taste, cover and put in a medium oven for around three hours, checking periodically that it has not dried out.

Apple pie with butterscotch custard.Thanks to my wife being the finest pastry maker in the world the pie was fantastic, made with gleaned bramleys from the orchard through the woods. The custard is what I really want to mention though. It isn't extravagant like most butterscotch flavoured concoctions, but still complimented the apple superbly.I know the salt is a strange addition, but without it the flavour is nothing.

granulated sugar

Bring milk to the boil in a large saucepan.

Put the sugar with a flick of water into a hot pan. As it begins to melt stir briskly until the liquid sugar has turned to a dark amber colour.

Whisk the caramel into the hot milk being careful of the frothing and boiling which will result.

If lumps form, whisk until they dissolve.

Thicken flavoured milk with cornflour.

Sweeten with more sugar and add small amounts of salt a until a deep butterscotch flavour is achieved.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

18th October Stoets and Phantams

                                                                        A Phantam!

 A wet start to the day, with a chill wind moving through the charcoal grey of 6:30 am. After such an extraordinary long spring and summer it was strange to feel the tingle of cold on my fingers again. The rain was enough to dampen, but not enough, I fear to push up any fungi for the foraging courses I'm running next weekend. The ground remains hard and dry and S’s cattle are breaking the fences to reach lush grass. Despite 200 tonnes of maize silage in store and the same again in grass silage he is reluctant to bring in the hundred strong herd too early, lest they run out of food! They even get concentrate on top of that.

Honey sales from the door continue apace, my latest customer being an inmate from the open prison up the road. They are not allowed to stop on the way to and from the station, but one man, thickset with a London accent disobeys to buy the odd jar for his wife. Having lifers (as they all are) stopping at the cottage might not seem ideal, but I find it strangely reassuring. They all seemed helpful and polite and living in a house where a determined toddler could force the door, it's good to have friends passing with the regularity of trains at the local station. Bill insisted that there is a waiting market over the fence, so with no private imports allowed I suggested lobbing some over one night. "Like the beer," he replied, winked, smiled and was away in the long white van.

Seasonal endeavours continue. The greenhouse donated by a moving friend (you will discover very little is bought round here) is finally up and after a mulch and a good raking by my rather obliging chickens (it's within the run) the fine seedbed was ready to plant with winter spinach. The remnants of the tomato crop left by the blight were boiled down to 3 small jars and join the 50 odd jars of passata which constitute our annual tomato supply. And organising seeds - the traditional dark evening spent dreaming of spring and fantasising (with the provocation of glossy seed catalogues) about next season's bumper harvest. We keep our own seed where possible, but what has to be bought is now on order. Pink Brandywine tomato, allegedly the finest flavoured in the world, will be a new experiment.

To the despair of my wife, one of my current schemes is to breed a 'Stoet', i.e. a wild stoat crossed with a domestic ferret. Stories from childhood of Romanys leaving out jills for the attention of male stoats, to produce small, fierce hunting offspring have long fascinated me and since the local Gypsy proudly showed me his mink cross ferret last spring (which I strongly suspect was not) I thought I might have a go. Which reminds me, he still owes me five pounds and two second-generation (supposedly) mink crosses for some ferret kits I sold him. I often come off badly when dealing with the travellers, but I enjoy the challenge and would prefer to have them on good terms than not. Anyway three live traps are out, with no success thus far. A couple of years back I managed to breed six Phantams (pheasant cross bantams), by putting a randy little farmyard cock in with a hen pheasant. Fertility and hatching were surprisingly good and of the half dozen white chicks (the cockerel had a lot of silver on him) four grew up bantam size, two pheasant size. The small ones were drab affairs, but the larger pair developed into stunning beasts. Like nervy pale pheasants, with erect tail feathers. I put one in a poultry auction convinced that it would cause a stir, but to my great disappointment it went largely unnoticed and even failed to reach its £10 reserve.

' Poor man's steak ' for dinner. That is pigeon breasts butterflied, hammered, peppered and flash fried and tonight served in a sandwich with tomatoes, mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. Sounds unlikely I know, but trust me, it tastes more like a half decent beef steak than a lot of rump served up in pubs and restaurants. The pigeon was a young bird, which helps and the ' steaks ' were meltingly tender.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

First Blog

I suppose this is where I set out my stall, get people interested, set the scene. The temptation is to pour out 30 years of back history, wax lyrical about a rural upbringing, flash the earthy credentials of a life spent out of doors, then sucker punch with my alter ego - the classically trained singer. That all sounds a bit serious though (and like a hell of a lot of writing) so I suppose I shall just get stuck in and if I keep writing and you keep reading it will all come out in the end.

Long intro deftly sidestepped, what is my blog about? In short: rural life and the endeavours of a committed countryman. Expect self-sufficiency, homage to the natural world, cooking, field sports, Morris dancing (always popular), music in the provinces, hatching, nurturing, growing, slaughtering, brewing, drinking and so the list goes on interminably. Basically I spend most of my time outside doing all manner of things - my days are full to the brim and yet when I am faced with the ultimate small-talk question… “So, what do you do?” …I never quite know what to say.  Now I can direct them to my blog and slip away as they consider whether or not I was joking.